Arguing about race and justice: an apologist’s perspective

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship drew critical attention for a talk on racial justice delivered at Urbana 15, its recent student missions conference. After plenary speaker Michelle Higgins called out pro-life activism and explained Black Lives Matters to evangelicals, InterVarsity issued a clarifying statement. Many conservative Christians struggle to understand where Higgins’ message comes from, but it is not a new one in the Christian church or even for InterVarsity. What she said is important to understand, because everyone should know and speak truth and act justly.

 

What Higgins Says

Most people will find things to agree with and disagree with in what Higgins says. In an online video of her talk, she shares her personal story, or her narrative. For her, this includes the brutal killing of a mixed race man by white authorities in 1837, not far from where Higgins lives and the Urbana conference is periodically held. Disappointed that evangelicals don’t want to talk about racial justice in the wake of several high profile police killings of young black men, Higgins asserts that her fellow evangelicals have edited and “blanked out” parts of their own story. She believes evangelicals have inherited a burden of white supremacy that says, “white is right.” Higgins affirms that God alone gives people their dignity, and that Christians should give control of their narratives to him. Practically, this means standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matters rather than remaining comfortably indifferent. Finally, she asserts that we have the means to end racist and classist oppression, but we need the will to end it.

Insight from an Apologist

As a mixed race son of a white American father and an immigrant Thai mother, I have long questioned personal identity claims. I don’t fit neatly inside many boxes. Having come to Christian faith in adolescence, I was deeply involved in an InverVarsity community all through college and for years after. But like many others, I wasn’t adequately equipped to interact with some of InterVarsity’s views on racial justice. It took a few years before I learned to critically examine worldviews through my involvement with Christian apologetics. Like I suspect Higgins does, I believe Christians should speak and act truth in love, and this extends to race and justice.

Telling Truth Carefully

In the face of those who deny it, Michelle Higgins correctly exhorts students at Urbana “to tell the truth, the whole truth.” But she overgeneralizes when she ascribes denial to North American evangelicals. For example, Higgins reports the evangelical heart attitude this way:

We’re not ready to talk about the fact that black bodies are grotesque to us, we don’t want to admit that. That’s a part of our story we’ve blanked out.

I can see this as an appropriate expression of righteous anger over a particular harm. I can see this as rhetoric to alert evangelical imaginations to some overlooked truth. But to assert that a whole group is in denial about something is a broad brush stereotype and a stumbling block to mutual understanding. Evangelists know that people bristle when they are told they are guilty of some sin they are unaware of, so why do social justice Christians speak so cavalierly? To so readily peg another’s heart attitude easily comes off as a manipulative and bald assertion. Prophetically speaking truth to power is appropriate for those who stand guilty, but it is far from established that evangelicals individually or collectively are guilty of all that Higgins lays before them.

At another point in her talk, Higgins says evangelicals have inherited a dominating Eurocentrism from the first missionaries arriving on the continent. She sums the inherited attitude this way:

I will not translate my Bible into their language; I will teach them what my Bible says according to me and have them learn what I believe Christianity to be.

Any Christian who is familiar with missions work knows that for centuries missionaries have diligently translated the Bible into native tongues. And for decades missionaries have been sensitive to the error of transmitting cultural non-essentials to people groups being reached out to. These, perhaps more so than the arrogant errors of four or five hundred years ago, are also evangelicals’ inheritance.

In the face of broad rhetorical accusations, many evangelicals have legitimate and unanswered questions. Speaking for InterVarsity, Greg Jao acknowledges the dissonance students experienced after Higgins’ talk:

“This was the first time many of them heard a message like this, and they were really wrestling with the implications: What does white complicity look like? What’s my responsibility as a member of the majority culture, and how do I know that what they’re saying is true?”

Advancing Agreement through Argument

The rhetorical questions Jao asks are familiar to me as an InterVarsity alum. I’ve heard asked many times, “What does it look like . . .?” This is not a bad way to proceed from established truths. But “white complicity” is controversial; it isn’t established in the church, the academy, or North American society that the crime of whiteness implicates any particular individual in any historical or systemic transgression. This is not denial but careful truth-telling. Merely finding that one’s values and tastes come from Europe rather than Africa doesn’t make one guilty of dominance. Social justice Christians who want to assert otherwise need to do more than just start conversations with open-ended questions. Requests for clarification and making distinctions aren’t always excuse seeking or the mere side effect of feeling uncomfortable. Instead, they are often crucial steps toward having constructive arguments that help lead to agreeing upon publicly shared truths.

Christian apologists do this in the broader culture, keeping in mind Peter’s advice to

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

An attitude of charity rather confrontation, and a disposition of credulity rather than suspicion, is required in helping others to see a truth that you see. Across the belief spectrum, it feels good to stand prophetically, speaking truth to power, but invoking imaginative sympathy and standing in solidarity aren’t enough to love God and neighbor. We must carefully speak the truth in pursuit of a deliberative consensus. Human imagination doesn’t just motivate feelings of sympathy and acts of solidarity, but enables acts of accurate understanding. If we can speak charitably rather than mislabel each other in the church, we will be closer to fulfilling Jesus’ words in John 13:35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

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Sagan’s pale blue dot: tribal confession or transcendent truth?

In a new year’s post, Adam Frank of 13.7 invites us to contemplate our place in the cosmos.  The professional stargazer asks, “What, really, is the point of it all?” He directs us foremost not to religion, or to philosophy, but to Carl Sagan.  Cue a four minute animation set to Sagan’s famous reflection on “the pale blue dot.”  Frank insists that “it will fill you with a sense of pure wonder.”  This invitation is too good to pass up.

This Voyager 1 photo of Earth as a pale blue dot, suspended in a sunbeam, captured the world’s imagination in the 1990s.   |   Wikimedia

But after watching it, I fail to feel wonder at the late Dr. Sagan’s deprecation of the human race.  Sagan insists of humanity, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”  In virtue of what principle does the pale blue dot challenge human importance and privilege?

Further, by what authority does Dr. Sagan diminish his fellow man as deluded?  John writes in his first epistle, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  Is Sagan’s brand of collective anthropic humility more palatable to some because it issues from a 20th century modernist tribe rather than a first century religious one?  A defender of Sagan’s myth would have to ironically claim some sort of epistemic privilege as well as self-importance.

The four minute animation–at one point summing the human condition via battling tanks with “H8” painted on their sides–concludes with these words:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Now I wholeheartedly agree that we have an imperative to be kinder and preserve our home, the Earth.  If one wants to hold a sense of wonder from passing judgment on fellow human beings and thinking that reality consists chiefly in void, empty space, and is merely the curious fractional remnant of a clash between matter and antimatter, he or she is entitled.  But moral responsibilities and good feelings do not automatically follow from such a vision; it may as well be just another unreasoned affectation, a tribal confession.

In light of entropy, mortality, and the heat death of the Universe, Bertrand Russell provides a logically consistent outlook: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Possibly, Sagan’s pale blue dot really is the vaunted God’s eye view.  But if there were anyone who could speak to humanity depravity and conceit with logical consistency, we should not be surprised when he self-importantly declares, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Top 10 uncogitated posts of 2013, part II

Here are the final five posts that should have been in 2013.

5.  Neuroscience and the Soul.  This year I mentioned a peer-reviewed philosophical journal put out out by the Evangelical Philosophical Society, Philosophia Christi.  If you have ever felt uneasy about the certitude with which neuroscientists, naturalist philosophers, and science populizers have pronounced the nonexistence of the soul, the irrelevance of essences, or the fully deterministic nature of human behavior, then the Summer 2013 issue of Philosophia Christi is for you.  It features ten or so excellent articles, by contributors who take time to interact with the work of prominent philosophers of science and mind, including Jaegwon Kim, John Searle and Daniel Dennett.

Mouse neurons, or Piers Morgan’s? (Wikimedia)

Eric La Rock draws deeply from scientific facts to propose a fuller account of consciousness called “emergent subject dualism.”   J.P. Moreland undermines the foundation of naturalistic top-down causation, and commends interactionist-dualism.  Daniel Robinson situates the stakes of neuroscience well within contemporary culture.  Be warned though, this is heavy reading!  If you proceed, it will acquaint you with the top Christian thinkers who are addressing metaphysical naturalism, materialism, and all those ideas which have subjected people alternately to despotism, decadence, or despair.

4.  Two posts from 13.7:  Cosmos and Culture.  This NPR-hosted forum is my favorite popular science blog to “pick on,” so to speak.  I discovered it this spring while googling in the aftermath of the epic William Lane Craig versus Alex Rosenberg debate.  Any references to substantive Christian metaphysics or perspectives on science are pretty scarce.  Some contributors are self-professed atheists, but all I think are at least deeply committed to keeping science divorced from traditional theism, even if they flirt all the time with spirituality.

Adam Frank wrote a post called, “Let’s Get Creative And Redefine The Meaning Of Religion.”  Reflecting on it, I realized that Thomistic ontology can be overlaid onto anyone’s worldview.  If one thinks that “science,” Captain Crunch, the material world, or any other thing is the maximally greatest being (MGB) in all possible worlds, then I would suggest that that is their conception of “God.”  Then, I would commend adding the quality of agency, that is the capacity for intentionality, to that MGB.  Then we’re having a discussion about theology.

Digging back to 2012, I discovered that Alva Noe reviewed Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies.  And while I haven’t read the book, I have a sense enough from other reviews and interviews to say that Noe didn’t engage it adequately.  Particularly, he offered an illustration comparing the necessity of an epistemic warrant for science to the need to justify improbable theories as to why a “check engine” light is on.  Basically he’s saying there is no need.  This dodge falls flat.  The facts that the mechanic exists, that the car exists, and that the mechanic knows how to go about fixing the care are in need of explanation!  The dismissal seems to be another instance of equivocating “I don’t need God to do X,” where it’s not clear whether Noe intends the need to be epistemic or ontological.

Despite the disappointment, writers like Frank and Noe offer provocative reflections on the nature and limits of science.  I’m still hoping they will one day successfully engage with thoughtful theism.

3.  Francis Beckwith’s Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.  I read this book in the first half of the year, and writer and apologist Kurt Jaros has reviewed it chapter by chapter at Values and Capitalism.  The big take away for me comes from Beckwith’s brief discourse on moral ecology, the idea that a citizen of a democracy has a vested interest in policy that shapes her surrounding culture’s morality.  This is because even if she is able to model good morals to her children, an overwhelming presence of moral degeneracy among her neighbors will still adversely impact her and her children.  It’s the kind of rousing call like in The Lord of the Rings film, where Merry and Pippin convince the apathetic Ents to go to war, because their fate is tied to the world around them.

One chapter provides an invaluable reference on the origin of the idea of the separation of church and state.  That phrase itself is not explicitly in the Constitution; rather it comes from a private correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists, that was conscripted for jurisprudence in the 1940s.  Every proponent of religious freedom should learn the facts contained therein, given that groups like Freedom From Religion Foundation use the wall of separation to intimidate and silence public exercise of religious freedom.

Another chapter, detailing the history of religious freedom in America, draws heavily on the Catholic experience.  There is an analogy between Catholics in the past and evangelicals, broadly defined, today.  Each have been persecuted minorities in their respective times.  Lovers of freedom would be wise to learn from the relevant history Beckwith provides.

2.  Ryan T Anderson withstands Pierce Morgan and Susie Orman’s bigotry.

From Merriam Webster:

Bigot : a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

I discovered this phenomenal YouTube video months after it first aired in the spring.  For an extended segment of The Piers Morgan Show, Ryan Anderson, editor of The Public Discourse and co-author of an academic and a popular work defending traditional marriage, endures lame challenge after lame challenge, and booing from the audience to boot.  Susie Orman serves as an unfortunate prop to make the same sex marriage issue personal.

Toward the end, Morgan accuses Anderson of being on the wrong side of his age demographic.  At the tender age of 31, he is in the minority among his peers in his opposition to government recognition of same sex marriage.  All told, Anderson’s appearance is a perfect study in composure and sticking to the facts in the face of ad hominems and vitriol.  Mr. Anderson, you are the real deal.  I salute you!

1.  William Lane Craig featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Dr. Craig garnered unprecedented attention in the world of academia when he was highlighted in a major story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The piece opened by introducing him as the man who at the mere mention of his name makes New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, snarly and defensive.  “Why are you publicizing him?” Dawkins demands.  The story goes on to detail, in a fairly balanced way, the ambitious long range intellectual project first undertaken at Biola University to disseminate scores of thoughtful, committed, first-rate Christian scholars into the ranks of universities around the world.  The author notes that this kind of effort is simply unparalleled by other communities.

*****

And so it is with great excitement, as we head into 2014, that I myself will be partaking in some of that Biola goodness as I start earning a Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics.  I’ll be busier come January, and I can’t say for sure what things will look like at this blog.  Dear reader, God bless you in the new year!

Faith and reason: on predication, rationality, and charity

Predication can be bruising at venues like Parliamentary Question Time. | UK Parliament / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Last month, I posted a critique of Dr. Tania Lombrozo’s interlinked think pieces at Boston Review and 13.7.  I was gratified but slightly apprehensive when she linked back with a post titled, Science Vs. Religion: A Heated Debate Fueled By Disrespect.  To boot, a photo of a South Asian firebreather accompanied the text!  Granted, editors sometimes make decisions not always in accord with the writer’s wishes.  Still, I wondered, what kind of splash did I make on the inner life of this cognitive scientist?  From what Dr. Lombrozo wrote of my critique, I think I acquitted myself well.

Before I comment further on this interaction, I must congratulate Dr. Lombrozo for undertaking a couple of posts on charitable discourse.  In her aforementioned post, I got to serve as a counterweight to biologist Jerry Coyne, one of the staunchest defenders of evolution.  A comment on his blog accused her of being an “accomodationalist,” a scientific Nevil Chamberlain, an appeaser.  Needless to say, her post generated hundreds more heated comments by the clamorous content consumers at 13.7.

But then with her subsequent blog entry, Dr. Lombrozo came back with a real shocker.  She shared an academic paper authored by Lara Buchak, a Berkeley philosopher of religion.  Buchak asked, “Can it be rational to have faith?”  I particularly enjoyed the explication, because Buchak’s theory of decision making is based on a general assumption that human persons are more or less rational.  Quite possibly, that could even apply to nomadic Iron Age sheep herders!  I can see religious epistemologists–philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Paul Moser, and Richard Swinburne–having fun engaging with Buchak’s work.

The assumption that humans are innately, even unconsciously and unwittingly, reasonable is a counter-intuitive antidote to the popular belief that today, we’re somehow automatically smarter than our ancestors.  It also matches the underlying premises of my college two majors, international relations and economics.  If you want to know what a rational actor or a utility-maximizing agent is, crack open the textbooks of those disciplines.  As I received them at UC Davis a decade ago, the operative principles of those fields were still firmly rooted in mid- to late Enlightenment thought.  No special taint of phenomenologies, Higher Criticisms, or other products of Teutonic intellectual degeneracy.

That being said, my interest in Continental philosophy, the brainchild of Kant, Hegel, Marx, et al. has grown over the years.  Perhaps the best place for common, “charitable ground” as Lombrozo tagged it, is to be found there.  Recently, I discovered that Dallas Willard, a widely admired evangelical teacher and popular author, cut his philosophical teeth on the work of logician Edmund Husserl.  Dr. Willard even drew upon him when contributing to a collection of essays on Derrida!  There, he critiqued Derrida’s conception of “Predication as Originary Violence.” Are you totally lost yet?

So what of that tangle between Lombrozo and myself?  In “Science Vs. Religion,” she observes that my reading of her piece as “‘a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism’ . . . suggests an antecedent assumption of hostility.”  I would agree with this!  But only in a limited sense.  I think “hostility” is best understood as a state of affairs between persons proper.  But a close reading of both my critique and her response will show careful wording that produces not interpersonal hostility, but sets up an adversarial contest between ideas.  William Lane Craig observed recently at Reasonable Faith (Are Debates too Polarizing?) that in academia, the relationship between two different theses apprehending the same object is inherently “agonistic,” or competitive.

If predication is an assignment or affirmation about an antecedent object–the possible intent behind a person’s words–then it is only the mind of the reader that can predicate hostility.  Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.  To practice charity in discussion, then, is to refrain, if possible, from assigning malevolence to the author’s intent.

I suspect that awareness of the nature of intent is something Dr. Willard took away from his reading of the Biblical Jesus.  In the gospel of John, again and again Jesus masterfully avoids the snares of his questioners, whether his disciples, the Pharisees, or Pontius Pilate.  The question is answered with another question; inquiry is turned back on itself.  Is there a more radical skepticism than that?  “Who do you say that I am?”  On Christianity, the divine nature–perhaps the goodness of freedom of the will–is of such weight that the answer to Jesus’ question is only found in one’s own predication.

And so it might be for us.  To avoid violence against the other as she actually is, we judge the merit of the idea, not the motive of the person.  Is there any better way to collaborate in reconciling our disparate ideas to objective reality?

One god less

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Have you encountered the “one god less” rhetorical appeal before?  It goes something like this: “You don’t realize it, but you are an atheist too.  You already reject thousands of other gods.  I just believe in one god less than you do.”

Never mind that the correct grammatical form is “fewer,” not less. The slogan is clever but a poor truth claim. It treats the existence of deity as a quantitative rather than a qualitative issue. The appropriate question is not whether any number of deities exist, but is deity a quality of any part of reality?

In his debate with Alex Rosenberg last February, William Lane Craig laid bare the absurdity of metaphysical naturalism, which I identify here with materialism.  On such a view, science cannot find God.  But neither can it find persons!  Craig highlighted eight problematic implications of materialism.  Among them: first-person perspectives are illusory, individuals don’t persist through two moments of time, and no one actually thinks.  This last one follows from the premise that material cannot exhibit intentionality; it can’t inherently be “about” or “of” anything.  The conclusion contradicts our everyday experience; we think about things all the time.  The reality of mind is at odds with materialism.

Rosenberg deflected Craig’s metaphysical critique during the debate.  However, being more candid in the post-debate exchange, he did address a relevant chapter of his popular book, The Atheist’s guide to reality. The chapter is titled “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything at All.” It recalls a book by Floyd Ferris, a fictional government scientist in Atlas Shrugged.  That work is amusingly titled, Why Do You Think You Think?

When it comes to building a worldview, the materialist is confined to a set of insufficient explanatory options. I’ve recently found that Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, each coming from very different places, seem to be saying as much in their own respective works (Mind and Cosmos and Where the Conflict Really Lies).

Indulging the mystique of exotic sciences like quantum mechanics and brane cosmology, lay materialists illicitly attribute intelligence, awareness, and causal potency–hallmarks of personality–to their favorite model of reality.  No amount of quantitative work can make up for a lack of qualitative analysis.

Back to “one god less.”  Why should it not follow that belief in a negative number of gods is more true belief in zero gods? If the materialist seriously entertains this question on a qualitative basis, she runs the danger of believing the existence of one God more.

The Sheeple’s Judge: on the Moral Monster

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To call others “sheeple” is to dismiss their beliefs with a broad brush.  Taking this rhetoric at face value is genetic fallacy.  That some people may not think through the belief thoroughly does not make the belief untrue.

Reading the lively comments following Caroline’s fairly recent two-part post, “Judging Our Judge,” I was encouraged.  The participants, as long as they remained open to discussion, had not succumbed to the sheeple fallacy.

A few weeks out, I’d like to see if I can add some value to the conversation.  I propose to work with this statement: “In the Bible, God is a moral monster.”  By “moral monster” I mean “evil.”  The other day I heard JP Moreland supply a definition of evil: when something is not as it ought to be.  Feel free to lodge a qualification, but focusing on the statement for this post will allow, as Dennis Prager says, clarity over agreement.  After all, agreement is impossible if we mean different things.

Reading evil

Concluding that God is evil from reading the Bible is a literary exercise.  On postmodernism, there is no “naked eye” to read the text; we all come to it with our own interpretive lens.  Fortunately, we can evaluate an interpretation by what informs it.  Knowledge of cultural context, a plausible understanding of the characters, and a moral ontology are some things that necessarily inform a reading of God as Moral Monster.

The need for historical and cultural context is self-evident.  Relatively late in church history, some Christians mistakenly began to read the Bible in light of “plain truth.”  Moral Monster replicates this error.  For the most part, people have read the Bible critically, employing contextual aids and contemplating for years on the consistency and coherence of its content.  Scholars, theologians, and lay people have built a tremendous body of interpretive resources.  To supply an off the cuff reading that doesn’t even try to engage with those resources is hasty.  At least, the reading must fare well against authoritative scholarship.  Not the popular works of physicists or geneticists, but peer-reviewed scholars of literature or divinity.

What is the moral standard?

The reading is also informed by its moral ontology.  This is the set of values and obligations that constitute a moral system or standard.  A moral system lays out not just whether any given act, object, or circumstance is good or bad.  It also can stipulate who owes what to whom, and if its conditions are absolute or situational.

The obligatory nature of a moral system requires it to be objective.  Subjective or relativistic systems are practically meaningless if they are not independent of personal belief.  Morality, if it exists, must be necessary, not contingent.  A supernatural being who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good remains by far the most credible explanation for objective morality.

Consequently, to say “In the Bible, God is a moral monster” is really an in-house debate between theists.  A Muslim or a follower of Baha’i might raise the moral monster critique meaningfully.  But a naturalist or materialist who invokes the reality of evil needs to explain why what he calls morality is not merely subjective or illusory.

Justice and the Supererogatory

In appealing to what ought to be, Moral Monster is a claim to justice.  If God is good, he must be just.  Critics focus on the fact that evil is committed in the temporal world, the part of creation in space-time.  But justice is done when all debts are paid on the flip side of creation, in eternity.  That which not ought to be is erased.  The NIV translation of Revelation says of the righteous, “He will wipe every tear from their eye.”

Still, the question remains, why does God allow any evil at all?  At this point the critic needs supply a reason why goodness needs anything more than justice.

But Christian theology already supplies one.  Prior to creation, God was perfectly good.  He decided to do something extra that was meaningful.  He created moral agents who have no rights except to not arbitrarily suffer injustice.  They, who freely rejected him and became subject to justice, have a second chance to enjoy him in his full goodness for eternity.  This is the supererogatory act: doing not just what’s required of him, but going beyond it.  Some call it grace or mercy.  The critic is free to offer an alternative account of good and evil that is a more compelling fit for reality.

Conclusion: the stakes of evil

Cashing out one’s own views on evil will move one closer to theism and away from atheism.  One who is a theist, or who supplies an objective moral standard, can critique the God of the Bible.  However, well informed readings of the Bible find God to be not merely just, but merciful as well.  This is the best fit for our real experiences of good and evil.

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